It comes in moments like this one:
“Daddy, why are you and Mommy sleeping in different bedrooms?”
The befuddled Daddy just stares at his six-year-old son, a boy old enough to understand that the natural order of his life has been disrupted though he doesn’t know why, what it means. But there might come a day when he’ll ask,
“How long…has this been goin’ on?”
I watched this boy’s face wonder and wonder, and I felt all of his confusion.
I felt his age.
However, this was only a movie about a real-life serial killer, and parents sleeping in separate bedrooms were but a blip on the overall radar screen where a madman was threatening to “pick the little kiddies off one by one” as they rode their daily school bus. Except that the blip kept beeping inside my head, portending its own zodiac-signed doom.
What’s wrong with us? We watch movies over and over about random acts of terror, but we are afraid of each other. We tolerate brutal violence in our media on a regular basis, but one day we decide to leave the bed of the person we have loved. And we can’t be sure that our loved one will wonder why.
We decide that we can no longer tolerate someone we’ve lived with longer than we’ve lived with anyone else. And all the years that we loved? Where do they go?
In my life, I’ve spent too much time counting for other people.
* * *
As a teenager, I loved Carly Simon’s songs, but only enough to purchase one of her albums, Anticipation. Yet the song I love most is from an earlier album, a song called “That’s the Way I Always Heard It Should Be.” A song that was semi-popular, like me, back when I was fourteen.
When I first heard it, it was her voice I heard. I didn’t get lost then in the story. It was one of those songs that like any other ballad causes a fourteen-year old boy to look down, look away, look anywhere but at the car radio, the person driving, or in the eyes of anyone who might understand and agree. It’s even such a song as to cause a boy of that age to push the button on the dial to the next station down the kilohertz path, hoping to find “Honky Tonk Women” or even “Smiling Faces.”
But I didn’t push a button on the day I first heard that song. I listened on in part because I trusted the DJ’s on WSGN (“The Big 610”). And in part because a girl who could sing like that was somebody I wanted to love.
The song wasn’t in “heavy rotation,” so I didn’t get to hear it often, and even when I did, I probably pushed my WAQY or WVOK buttons because of who else was in the car with me or because in my adolescent life, I didn’t always have room for someone else’s pain. I could listen to it only in my bedroom, late at night, on the hand-me-down Magnavox AM-FM radio sitting on my night table.
Once, though, I was riding in a green Volkswagen with a young woman I trusted. She could sing well enough to be in locally produced musicals. She loved Streisand, Joni Mitchell, and Carole King.
She turned the radio up and sang knowingly as Carly’s song began:
“I tip-toe past the master bedroom where
My mother reads her magazines.
I hear her call ‘Sweet Dreams,’
But I forget how to dream.”
The persona’s father sits up late and alone, smoking his cigarette that “glows in the dark.” The song doesn’t say that the parents are sleeping in separate bedrooms, but it doesn’t have to. We wonder and wander with Carly’s voice: how happy will her life be—how happy can it be—with such a pathway laid out before her?
Hearing the lyrics, picturing the images and scenes that the story conjures: that’s my generation’s experience with pop music. My parents never got this. Periodically, withstanding as much of my radio tunes as he could, my father would complain:
“They forget about melody and harmony, because all they want to do is tell a story.”
That was my Big Band era father, a jewelry salesman, a man who thought I studied English because I loved the finer points of grammar.
My father will never understand Carly or James or Neil, I thought then. But back then, I didn’t completely understand their stories either.
But when the young woman in the green Volkswagen started having affairs with much younger men—and she was only twenty-two—and when her husband followed suit, for a while they stayed together in their little house with the screened-in porch where I once went to a party and drank too much Canadian Mist. But there wasn’t enough mist to keep me from seeing clearly those two bedrooms. Not enough to keep me from wondering how many years “this” had been going on.
And not enough to keep me from seeing all that I had seen before.
* * *
Through adolescence I often spent the night with Dickie, one of my best friends. His family lived outside of town on a remote stretch of road in the country where they had built their own house, the first family I knew to do so. They had a private lake but also a swimming pool that even in the middle of our sauna summers would turn a hearty person blue at the mere toe-touch of water.
Dickie was an only child, and so staying with him meant that we had uninterrupted hours of playing board games, wandering in the woods with his white German Shepherd, and staging desperate but orderly car races with his Hot Wheels set.
At night, things were so quiet at his place that I often got scared and homesick and begged to be driven home. Their house had been burgled several times before, but Dickie’s mother reassured me that she would take care of me, that everything would be all right. And as much as I continued to worry, she was right: everything was all right. For me at least.
Dickie’s Dad was a musician in his spare hours, playing Shriners Club affairs and wherever else Big Band music was desired. He loved those bands led by Benny Goodman, Stan Kenton, Tommy Dorsey, just as my own Dad did. But unlike my Dad, Dickie’s wasn’t always around at night. When he was there with us, he either kept busy with unknown assignments, or tried to engage Dickie and me in “his music” while constantly belittling “ours,” though of course, The Beatles were the only pop stars he really knew.
Also unlike my father, Dickie’s Dad wore silk robes, ascots, and while my Dad didn’t smoke at all, not only did Dickie’s father smoke, he also used a cigarette holder for his favorite brand, Carleton. He loved German cars, too, and when they traveled to Europe, Dickie’s Dad bought a Porsche in Germany and had it shipped back home. My family, on the other hand, settled for used Pontiacs.
Still, my friend’s father was always nice to me, just a bit formal, stand-offish. My own mother described him as having a “quick temper,” but I don’t remember ever seeing it displayed.
Dickie’s mother, as I noted, was sweet to me, always considerate. She was rather plain-looking, short, and had the thinnest hair of any woman I knew. She was the first woman I knew, too, who bought and wore a wig that I suppose, made her feel better, prettier.
But it must not have helped, not where it really counted. After all, the evidence was right in front of me.
Dickie and I were eleven or twelve then, and on the morning after one of our sleepovers, after our breakfast, and after his Dad had left for work, I walked down the extended hallway to Dickie’s room to get something for one of our games. Passing by the “guest bedroom” on the left—where my grandmother had slept on the one occasion she came with me in order to paint the beauty of the woods and lake around Dickie’s house—I noticed that the guest bed was unmade and recently used. Someone had been sleeping in it, but this was no fairy tale, nor had there been any porridge that morning with our bacon and eggs.
I looked across the hall at Dickie’s parents’ bedroom, and that bed had been slept in too. That’s where Dickie found me, stuck between two former lovers:
“Uh, Dickie, don’t your parents sleep together anymore?”
“I guess not, not for a while anyway.”
And that’s all. What else was there for us to say? We returned to our Hot Wheels double-elimination tournament with our cast-metal and painted Firebirds and Mustangs and Deoras. Our world went on.
But every time I had to go to the bathroom at the far end of that long hallway, I had to pass those facing bedrooms and consider again and again what it all meant.
* * *
My sixth grade teacher was a very young woman, straight out of grad school. She used to belong to a clique of high school girls who sunbathed with our next-door neighbor, Nancy. I used to watch them from my bedroom window in the room next to my parents’ bedroom. Their windows faced a different side of the house, the back end, and from their double bed, you could see pecan trees, and in the distance the brown stone South Highland Baptist church. But from my window, all I saw was a white stone patio and several teenaged girls in two-piece swimsuits. Sometimes Nancy, and Beth, my future teacher, waved at me. I was just this six-year-old boy at a window looking out at four or five or even six high school beauties.
I thought of this scene as Beth, now Mrs. Thames, explained to our class the intricacies and beauty of pop culture—the complexity of Sgt. Pepper and her favorite song, “She’s Leaving Home,” and the romantic pathos of her favorite new film, The Graduate, especially when Ben and Elaine take that bus to nowhere at the end. I fell in love with that film, too, then, though of course no one I knew would take me to see such a thing. It was only twenty-five years later that I did see it on a home VCR. Why it took me so long, I still don’t understand.
I teach a course on Film and American Culture now, and in it, I invariably assign The Graduate as essential 1960s viewing. What better example of American culture than plastics, adultery, and the aimlessness of privileged college graduates.
This current semester, one of my students wrote her major essay on the film, and in her excellent analysis she discussed the scene where Mrs. Robinson confesses to Benjamin that she and Mr. Robinson have been sleeping in separate beds for some years. In Benjamin’s face I see the flickering of other scenes, other memories, and maybe a dawning truth. And as I gaze this time, I begin adding up all the separate beds in my past.
I comment about these combined and distinct numbers to my wife that evening, and she reminds me that my reaction to separate beds is rather dramatic:
“One night apart, and you’re OK. But let it go onto the second night and you get anxious and have to remind me that you don’t want to end up like your parents!”
“Yeah, it’s definitely one of my primal fears, up near the top with ‘angry white men,’ pictures of open hearts, and the Book of Revelation.”
She laughs at this and so do I. But I do have these fears, and these are just the ones I’m telling.
And we don’t sleep apart often, but the reality is that I’m a very light sleeper, and my wife has trouble breathing through her nose. So on occasion, one of us hits the couch or, now that they live away from us, one of our daughter’s beds. But I find that sleeping apart doesn’t really help me sleep.
It’s just a different kind of wakefulness.
Sleeping apart doesn’t necessarily mean your love has died. But as my friend “George” puts it, “It doesn’t help,” either.
And what I saw in Dickie’s parents, what I see in the Robinsons, took place at a time when divorce wasn’t such a ready and popular option. Are things better now? I’m not saying that exactly, but in the older era of secret facades and internal misery—the ’50s and ’60s—sleeping in separate beds happened more often than I ever knew. But Carly helped me understand:
“The couples cling and claw, and drown in love’s debris.”
For of course, eventually I became intimate with her words.
* * *
Shortly after we were married, my wife and I were visiting my parents. When we got there, I saw that my mother had redecorated my old teenage bedroom—the one I moved into after my grandmother died—with Civil War battle prints, Confederate swords mounted over my former bed, and the faces of Lee and Jackson staring at me from my past-life dresser. I wondered if I had ever occupied this room. Where was my deep-orange suede trunk? My old stereo that sat on it, and all those vinyl LPs that used to collect dust in the corner of the room?
“I’m sleeping in here now,” my mother said, her voice taking on the accusatory tone that had now become its default position.
“When my elbow was operated on,” she continued, “I had to wear a cast, and I was just too uncomfortable to sleep in that double bed with your Daddy. So I started sleeping in here until the cast was removed. But your Daddy never said a word to me about coming back, that he missed me, or kiss my foot. Nothing! So I just decided to stay in here. Do you like it?”
Figuring that the “it” meant the décor, I said “Yeah” with as much enthusiasm as one normally finds in that word. Nouveaux-Confederate just doesn’t grab me.
Knowing that the “it” was probably not an invitation for me to comment on my parents’ sleeping arrangement—although how can I be sure that she wasn’t asking for understanding, commiseration, sympathy, or agreeable outrage on her behalf?—I tried to mask my feelings of horror. I tried to recall all my visions of my parents sleeping side by side and let them overwhelm this new and indifferent reality.
When my childhood bedroom adjoined theirs and I passed through it some early mornings on the way to the bathroom, sometimes I’d see them lying with their arms around each other. Getting back in my bed then felt warm and safe. Comforting.
Once, long ago, I thought they were so happy.
I knew that hadn’t been true for some time, but I still had this illusion, this comforting image, when I thought of them in their house alone. This illusion that their marriage wasn’t an illusion. This illusion that at night, despite a day full of disagreement that kept them emotionally apart, they would end the evening together.
In the same bed.
Staring at a room, at a configuration that I no longer recognized, I began thinking of all those TV sitcoms from the ’50s where married couples slept in twin beds. I couldn’t understand it then: why didn’t they sleep like my parents did? Weren’t they in love and happy?
I thought my parents were the standard, that the marriage bed wasn’t merely symbolic. That a home was a home, and everyone kept to the script of his and her assigned places, just as we did at the supper table. Just as we did with all of our closets, our dressers, our bathroom towel racks, and our seats in front of the TV.
* * *
At times like these, I want the innocence of the little boy in Zodiac who knows nothing of serial killers and even if he did, wouldn’t begin to understand explanations of the motives and actions of someone who could commit such brutal acts over and over.
How could he, when he couldn’t grasp the reality of a world where his parents changed their beds, and in doing so, disrupted his world?
I want to be him because without any understanding of why, he could invent reasons, could convince himself that this was only a temporary reality, that it didn’t mean anything, that nothing was truly wrong, and that the reason might be as simple as that one of his parents had hurt an elbow; that one of them was snoring too loudly.
He might not understand completely, but he might just go about his business then, and if a spend-the-night friend asked about his parents’ new arrangement, he could simply shrug and explain that it had been going on for a while, that it was nothing big, and then go back to his Hot Wheels or Carly Simon records and hope that it would all go away one day.
Which it does with time, as we get used to the arrangements we’ve made. Or the ones others have made for us as if we have no concern in the matter, no feelings, no voice. As if we can make peace with an intimate world that has forgotten how to love and why it ever did so in the first place.
As if having a bed to oneself helps us sleep peacefully through the night, waking up refreshed and with a newfound sense of purpose.
As if, though there may be another person in the house, we aren’t clearly and utterly alone.
TERRY BARR writes about music and memory for culturemass.com, and has had other essays published in Red Fez, The Abstract Quill, RiverLit, and has work forthcoming in Blue Lyra Review and Sport Literate. He lives in Greenville, SC, with his wife and two daughters.